It is late July, 1978. Yankee Stadium. I am sitting in the upper deck between first and home. It is Old Timers Day, normally reserved for obeisance to Joe D., Mickey, Yogi, and Whitey Ford. But today, it is Billy Martin, under the most bizarre of circumstances, who is getting the hero’s welcome. Days earlier, Martin had “resigned” after a tumultuous Yankee season had hit its boiling point. Far behind the Red Sox in the standings, the defending Champs were reeling. Billy was warring in the dugout (and everywhere else) with Reggie Jackson. George Steinbrenner was getting restless. So it all comes to a head when Billy famously remarkes of Reggie and George, “They deserve each other. Once’s a born liar, the other’s convicted.”
That was it for Billy. Or so we thought. Feeling the wrath of the fans, Steinbrenner allows Billy to return to the Stadium that weekend for the Old Timers’ festivities (and as we know, he would allow him to return as manager four more times over the next decade). For me, a diehard Mets fan, his team was firmly planted in the cellar and totally eclipsed by the Steinbrenner Yankees just nine years after the Miracle of ’69, this Bronx Saturday in July was slice of heaven, a respite from the dreariness that had settled over Flushing. I had bought these tickets months earlier, expecting little more than the usual parade of Yankee legends. What I got was a perfect moment of schadenfreude. The Bronx Bombers were imploding. Billy was lauded as a martyr, Reggie and Boss George were cast as villains. And Billy is introduced during the pregame ceremony — as the next Yankees manager in 1980! He and George and kissed and made up already?? To quote Major Clipton in the final scene of The Bridge on the River Kwai, “Madness! Madness.”
Billy receives a thunderous, rollicking ovation. Even I stand to applause. The rest of the day is filled with chants of “Steinbrenner Sucks”and lusty boos for Reggie every time he walks to the plate. Along with the warm, muggy rays of the July sun, I soak it all in with great satisfaction.
Fast forward. It is early September, 1987. I am sitting in the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home on the Upper East Side. The chapel is packed with mourners who have come to pay their final respects to Dick Young, the legendary, cantankerous New York Daily News sport columnist who passed away a few days earlier. The service begins and we are asked to rise as the organ wails. At that very moment, the side door to the chapel opens. Arriving fashionably late is Steinbrenner and his close friend, Bill Fugazy, the limousine mogul. I notice that George looks a bit befuddled, even embarrassed, his grand entrance ill-timed. He stands respectfully at the door until we are asked to be seated. Few, other than myself, seem to notice his presence. Another moment of schadenfreude. Small, fleeting, private — but satisfying nonetheless.
This is kind of the way things were going for Steinbrenner at the time. The Yankees were growing increasingly unstable throughout the 80’s. No post-seasons since ’81, a parade of managers (nine in all), including Yogi Berra, who was unceremoniously dumped by George in ’85, and three more tangos with Billy Martin. The Mets were the reigning World Champs and had taken back the town from the Yankees for the first time since ’73. Things would only grow worse for George and his Yankees. The Bombers would sink further in the standings, devoid of stars like Reggie and Guidry and Munson, who helped resuscitate them a decade earlier. A few years later, George would be suspended from baseball by Commissioner Fay Vincent for his unseemly dealings with a small-time gambler named Howard Spero in an attempt to defame Dave Winfield. By the early 90’s, the Yankees would hit rock bottom.
As George Steinbrenner is laid to rest this week, I think back to those days in ’78 and ’87. At that time, he was already an iconic figure in New York, if not the rest of the country. Reviled by many, adored by many, ignored by none. He had his two World Series rings, four pennants, and a well-earned reputation for bombast, bluster and bravado. A year later, he would further cement his reputation for boldness and power by securing a landmark $500 million multi-year agreement with Madison Square Garden Network. But his suspension (and the seedy details surrounding it), his fatal attraction to Martin, the Yankees fading fortunes in the standings (as the hated Red Sox rose to the top of the AL East), and his non-stop craving for the back pages of the tabloids, left many — myself included — questioning what George legacy would leave. Successful, brilliant owner or imperious, overbearing micro-manager?
Well, we all know now. Read the laudatory eulogies that have poured forth over the last 48 hours. Look at the Yankees bank account. The five more World Series titles and seven pennants accumulated since 1996. The magnificent new ballpark (or shall we say palace) that towers over the Major Deegan Expressway. The four million fans who pour through the turnstiles each year. The regional sports network (YES) that paved the way for many more of its kind, that made the mind-boggling deal with MSG look quaint by comparison. The star-studded lineup of Jeter, A-Rod, Tex, C.C. and Mariano. The fans in China, and Japan, and Australia, and Italy wearing the familiar NY on their heads.
Just feel the power of the New York Yankees brand.
It was George Steinbrenner’s final act that solidified his reputation as a businessman, as a truly visionary owner. His first act (the 70’s) was quite effective, albeit greatly flawed. His second act (the 80’s) was calamitous, filled with pitfalls and potholes. But what he accomplished as an owner in Act III is simply unprecedented and not likely to be replicated any time soon. Despite his character flaws, he gained the respect of many, including this cynical Mets fan, for what he accomplished.
It seems that once he returned from his suspension in 1992, there was no more being late to the funeral. Or more appropriately, to the parade. His timing, his intuition, his vision, seemed all in sync. He became even more bold, yet more patient — evidenced by the previously incomprehensible notion that you can win in the Bronx with the same manager and general manager for more than decade. George may have retained much of his bluster and arrogance, but he seemed less impulsive (at least to this outside observer) and more focused on a long-range plan to build the most storied brand in American sports. Yes, he still threw a lot of money around, but it was often well spent and balanced by a thriving farm system that produced future Hall of Famers and standout role players. His manager, for 12 long years, was a balanced, steady man, the anti-Billy Martin if there ever was one.
Illness quieted the Boss and slowed him down in his final years, adding a tint of sympathy to his aura. And his caricature on “Seinfeld” softened his arrogance to an extent. It made you laugh, rather than cringe or gag, every time he went ballistic in the media.
I never would have believed some 32 years ago, as I giddily watched the tragi-comic opera unfolding in the Bronx, or even 23 years ago as I sat quietly in that funeral chapel, that I would look at George M. Steinbrenner in this light — that of a brilliant owner, a visionary, a man who truly learned from the errors of his ways to build a stable and lasting foundation for one of the most admired brands in sports.
Even in recent years, as he withdrew further and further into the shadows, his was still a towering presence. Like a baseball Charles Foster Kane in his final days. His stamp on the Yankees, the game of baseball, the city of New York, was so evident, so permanent, so powerful, that just hearing his name, glancing at his vuisage made you feel he was still firmly in control.
Now that he’s gone, his presence will still be felt, his legacy lasting as long as there are pinstripes in the Bronx. But the possibility, as faint as it may have been in recent years, that he still had a few tricks left in his bag, a few more bombshells to drop, more grand entrances to make, is no more.